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My husband recently bought me a Saturn SC with a...

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Dear Tom and Ray:



My husband recently bought me a 1997 Saturn SC2 with a five-speed manual transmission. Because I haven't driven a stick shift car in 25 years, I asked my daughter -- who also drives a Saturn stick shift -- for some advice. Years ago, I was taught it was necessary to downshift when slowing in traffic. My daughter tells me it's better now to just put the car in Neutral and coast to a stop. When my husband drives my car, he downshifts from fifth to fourth to third and so on. Which way is better? -- Kathy

TOM: Well, there are definitely benefits to downshifting in normal stop-and-go driving, Kathy. It's just that they're not mechanical. They are that 1) it's more fun than doing nothing because you can pretend you're Mario Andretti, and 2) it sounds really cool.

RAY: The problem is that downshifting is murder on clutches! If you downshift through all the gears every time you stop (like your hubby does), you're effectively doubling the number of shifts you make, and thereby cutting the life of your clutch in half!

TOM: So if he's willing to pay for your next several clutches, then tell him "Fine, Hon. Downshift all you want."

RAY: But your daughter is much closer to being correct. Our only disagreement with her is that we don't like to see people coasting long distances in Neutral. If you suddenly had to accelerate to swerve around a car or get out of somebody's way, you'd have to waste time shifting into gear first.

TOM: So the best procedure is to just leave the car in whatever gear you're using, and use the brake to slow down. Then, when you're almost at a stop (when you get down to 10 or 15 mph, just before the engine starts to buck), push in the clutch and leave it in, while putting the gearshift in Second (just in case you need to accelerate). And when you've come to a complete stop a few seconds later, shift into Neutral and take your foot off the clutch.

RAY: The only exception to that rule is when you're going down long, steep hills. Then the brakes can overheat, and it's crucial that you DO downshift and use the power of the engine to keep your speed under control.

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